Inside E3 2021's Media Portal — The Argument For and Against An 'All-Digital' E3

June 9, 2021
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E3 looks very different in 2021. As with many large-scale events, the annual summer video game trade show has moved entirely online. At a time where the threat of COVID-19 continues to loom large, it makes complete sense. And with so many options to connect with others across different platforms, and even the ability to take appointments for game demos over the internet, it made me consider whether the industry needed an in-person trade show ever again.

“We are evolving this year’s E3 into a more inclusive event, but will still look to excite the fans with major reveals and insider opportunities that make this event the indispensable center stage for video games.” Entertainment Software Agency President & CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis gushed about the potential positives of this year’s reworked event in a press release back in February — and he’s absolutely right. Or, at least, what he’s written there is.

Naturally, there are pros and cons to a decision like this. E3 is a hub for meeting people in the industry, whether they’re old friends or new contacts. It’s a chance to network and collaborate, all good things. However, removing the physical aspect of attending E3 has the potential to break down so many barriers to what remains the biggest event in the games industry calendar. 

Borderlands 3 at E3 2019. Booths and displays like this would dominate a ‘traditional’ E3 show floor. (Credit: Sergey Galyonkin)

For one, a properly supported digital platform makes the event more accessible for disabled people. Mobility issues can be negated by being able to take appointments from wherever a person feels most comfortable. Plus, any worry over physically getting to appointments on time or even the complications of travel to the convention centre (or the country) can be alleviated too. Advances in video conferencing technology alongside the addition of features like closed captioning and support for screen readers could potentially ensure anyone deaf or hard of hearing or those with visual impairments have easier access to resources as well.

Outside of accessibility, there’s also an environmental benefit to moving E3 online. The amount of power required to run an event the size of E3 is likely astronomical. The Los Angeles Convention Centre — the traditional ‘home’ of E3 — has initiatives in place regarding energy conservation, water usage and recycling. However, given the scale of the event it seems unlikely to me that these efforts can offset the impact of a large-scale event in any meaningful way. This is before we take travel into account too: in 2018, 69,200 people attended E3. The thousands of miles that industry professionals, press and fans travelled, many of them internationally, is a further environmental cross to bear for the event.

Moving a trade show like E3 online, especially considering its traditionally savvy audience, just makes sense. Alas, as the online ‘Media Portal’ opened to members of the games press on June 7th, it’s clear that in 2021 event organisers aren’t ready for E3’s potential future or willing to even embrace the idea.

At 10am PT / 6PM GMT I logged in to find a very basic — very un-E3 — website.

Each publisher signed up under the E3 banner had been assigned a page — or ‘booth’ — to showcase their upcoming wares, members of the press were encouraged to ‘network’ and drop off a digital business card to one of these barren web pages; pages that contain little to no pertinent information or perhaps an odd trailer for an already announced game. Oh, and everyone had to set up a 2D avatar thing first. It was weird. To call the whole thing disappointing would be an understatement. 

What should (and could) be a resource for organising appointments, accessing relevant assets and getting a head start on the video game industry’s busiest period feels more like an outdated, bloated social network designed more for ‘fan activations’ than a platform for industry professionals. It’s worth noting that registered fans will also be using this platform, although I can’t see what’s in it for them either at this point.

Even the official E3 FAQ doesn’t sound optimistic about our chances. Maybe we should just stick to email?

At the time of writing it’s the second day of E3’s purported “media week” — something that was advertised out to those of us registered as ‘Media’ ahead of the event. Right now, under a host of logos from the likes of Nintendo, SEGA, 2K and Gearbox, the E3 Portal has a message in the middle of its home page. “What’s Happening? Nothing is happening yet.” Black text. White background. Quite the message to send.

Of course, all of this could change in the coming days. Once press conferences are over and the opportunity for news to leak out ahead of time is closed, I expect publishers to have a whole host of resources available. To which I ask: “Then what was the point of media week?” There’s also every possibility that they won’t — it’s even mentioned in the FAQ:

“A virtual booth allows exhibitors to showcase their latest games, products, content and information if they so choose”

A quick search on Twitter reveals a laundry list of complaints from the games press. From joking about how useless it is, or simply pointing out that it isn’t very good, or even that for some it’s incredibly problematic (note: E3 has since issued an apology of sorts for misgendering attendees via Twitter).

Matt Brown, senior editor at Windows Central, constructed a lengthy thread on the myriad of issues with the service. The thread mostly pokes fun at the various crashes, broken (and unnecessary) avatar creation, and also takes aim at the ESA for its previous handling of user data. None of this should be unexpected from people whose job it is to think and write critically, and Matt certainly isn’t the only one tweeting his frustration. I couldn’t help myself either.

“The ESA fought to justify E3’s existence in 2021, already in question pre-pandemic, attempting to adapt to a virtual environment. But the result is an embarrassment,” Matt writes in the final tweet of the thread. “What does E3 now contribute as a virtual trade show, beyond “brand prestige?”

PlayStation has traded gargantuan booths and an in-person press conference for its digital ‘State of Play’ format.

Matt’s final point is his most pertinent. E3 — and the associated summer circus of video games — has survived seemingly on reputation, brand name and associated history. Publishers like EA and PlayStation have already abandoned ship, opting instead for digital showcases of their own. High profile dropouts like these, combined with the cancellation last year, was enough for many commentators to write the event off for good. Then again, we did the same when it returned from the hotels and aircraft hangars of Santa Monica over a decade ago.

A tired behemoth, E3 seems desperate for a true change. A properly executed all-digital experience that could cater for fans, influencers and media alike could be just the thing the giant event needs to save itself in the long term. What’s more, it could make an important change for the better of both the industry and the planet at the same time.

Alas, the ESA has already confirmed a return to normal for E3 in 2022. In fact, it was included in the very same press release that announced this year’s digital offering. In hindsight, this meant that proper investment into their digital presence was unlikely. Thus any hope for a more accessible, progressive, environmentally friendly future for the most talked about event in video games now seems even more of a pipe dream and an even bigger missed opportunity.

Now, I’m off to complete ‘Quests’ in the E3 portal, earn myself some digital swag, and hope that the rest of this week goes better.

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Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.